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Is there anything better than saving money? Well, sure, there are hundreds of better things, including warm socks fresh from the dryer. But it still feels great to stow some cash for the future.
Many travelers treat their credit card points and frequent flyer miles like cash, trying to save as many as possible and spend them sparingly. Some even brag about their Scrooge McDuck-like vaults filled with millions of miles and points.
Unfortunately, points don’t work like other investments — and saving instead of spending them is almost always a terrible financial decision.
If you’re a compulsive saver with an enormous stash of points, I’m sorry to tell you that your otherwise good habits are getting in your way. And if you’re a terrible saver who doesn’t know what a 401(k) is, congrats! You’re accidentally on your way to travel hacking success.
Imagine a terrible investment, then make it worse
Any financial expert will tell you it’s not smart to save too much money in the form of cash. Stuffing your life savings under the mattress exposes it to inflation; a dollar bill saved today is worth less than a dollar tomorrow.
Points and miles undergo a similar process called devaluation. Almost without exception, they become less valuable with time. But in reality, devaluation is even worse than inflation.
While inflation is controlled by enormous macroeconomic forces, devaluation is governed by the very companies that issued those points and miles in the first place. For example, American Airlines miles might be worth a cent for domestic flights today, but tomorrow the company could decide to reduce that value by 50%.
Sound crazy or far-fetched? Airlines have already been doing it over the past decade. Many have moved to “dynamic pricing” where they can literally adjust the value of their miles however they want, whenever they want — and they don’t even need to tell anyone they’ve done so.
In fact, travel rewards programs have a perverse incentive to lower the value of the points they use to lure you into their programs (though it’s not as kinky as it sounds). It works like this: These companies are incentivized to both give away as many miles as possible to attract customers and lower the value of those miles as much as possible to avoid losing money.
If that weren’t bad enough, many points and miles expire within a few years of being earned. Imagine if cash expired after a couple years — how much would you really try to save?
Fie on FOMO
Why do so many people hoard their points and miles despite these risks? Unfortunately, travel rewards writers like me are largely to blame. Whoops.
Many travel rewards articles focus on how to “maximize” and “get the most value” from your points, describing the palm-strewn utopias you could frolic amidst if you just did your research. This raises the bar too high and makes many travelers hold onto their points in search of the perfect redemption.
But for most travelers (including us rewards experts), the best award redemption is simply the one you actually make.
Imagine reading an article titled, “The 10 Best Ways to Get the Most Value From Your Money.” Obviously, that’s absurd. The “best way” to use money always depends on the needs of the owner — ditto points and miles.
Don’t let the fear of “maximizing” get in the way of spending your travel rewards. Do enough research to make sure you’re not getting screwed and making terrible redemptions, but don’t worry about those palm-strewn utopias if your personal best use for points is flying home to Hartford.
Make points-hoarding a dirty word
We all cringe at TV shows about hoarders who fill their apartments with cat food and old newspapers, but holding onto fast-depreciating points and miles doesn’t carry the same stigma. It should.
OK, fine, it’s not quite as gross — but it’s still bad personal finance. Travel points are made to be spent, so don’t feel guilty for booking your next trip (wherever it takes you).
Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected].
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best travel credit card for you Snag these hotel loyalty perks, even if you’re disloyal Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies